March 27, 2010

Jocelyn Brooke: The Image of a Drawn Sword

Posted in Brooke Jocelyn at 4:59 pm by John Self

I would never have heard of Jocelyn Brooke’s “only true novel” if it hadn’t been for a fleeting mention (“unbelievably fabulous”) in The Midnight Bell in December 2007. There, Sean predicted “over the next couple of years … republication by C&R or NYRB Classics or someone.” Well, I have no idea what C&R is, and NYRB haven’t taken up the gauntlet, but Faber have, and several of Brooke’s books are now available in their unfortunately hideous Faber Finds print-on-demand series. I read it in a 1983 King Penguin edition, with a valuable introduction by Anthony Powell.

The Image of a Drawn Sword (1950) is a fascinating curiosity – and more than that – which blends seemingly incompatible elements (and brings to mind disparate authors, from Kafka to Cheever) in the creation of a unique fable.

At the beginning of the story, village bank clerk Reynard Langrish is feeling a sort of ennui, “an inexplicable dread … it was as though he were living in a glass bell,” and as he walks home from work, his only succour is the knowledge that he “belonged to this countryside, was united to it.” When he gets home, the usual quiet evening in with his mother is interrupted by a chance caller, whose arrival is described in messianic terms:

The light streamed out through the open doorway, [in] which stood the tall figure of a young man: framed in the narrow doorway, he seemed immense, larger than life – a visionary being conjured out of the night’s wildness.

This portentous visitation is Roy Archer, a young man who quickly befriends Reynard. He introduces him to “the life of the body” – a boxing club, physical activity, army training, challenges to Reynard’s mental stasis. It is here that we first see the unveiled homoeroticism which is threaded through the book, and by the time Roy teaches him bare-knuckle fighting (“the dimmed car lamps made a little world of brightness in the surrounding dark, a world in which their two naked bodies were the sole inhabitants”), it’s not so much an undertone as an overture, augmented by the innocent appearance, in 1940s meanings, of words like cock, spunk and queer.

It’s not just cause for ironically raised eyebrows. Roy initiates Reynard into a mysterious world, where he must join the Army to play his part in ‘the Emergency’. The state of affairs is never adequately explained to Reynard (“But is there a war on, sir, or what?” “A war? I’m afraid you’re rather simplifying the issue, aren’t you?”) and it is a world which seems to exist in the same fields and pathways as Reynard’s old world, but which runs parallel to it. In his first encounter with Roy, Reynard can hear the sound of bugles coming from “the mysterious region known as Clambercrown,” even though there is no army camp there. The whole English countryside, to which Reynard feels intimately connected (“his totem, the fox”) seems part of a conspiracy to confuse and disorient him.

Nothing in this high remote place seemed earthly or substantial: sound merged with sight, the blown grasses were an emanation of the wind itself, trees hung cloud-like above the horizon.

As Reynard pursues his secret assignations with Roy and the training camp, about which his mother and bank colleagues know nothing, their relations seem like an analogue of another kind of affair. “During his working-hours not a word escaped him as to his friendship with Roy; and when Roy himself paid one of his frequent visits to the bank, no slightest word or gesture on either side betrayed the close bond which united them. Reynard, indeed, adopted a brusque, almost discourteous tone towards Roy, and would sometimes silently criticise his friend for appearing too friendly.” Reynard’s desire for a different life seems to hint at a dreamed-of world – still decades away when the book was published – where men could publicly be more than just friends.  It is raised again, in a touching scene where Reynard, having been forced to share sleeping quarters with a tramp, wakes to find that his companion has robbed him during the night.

The trust, even the affection, had been genuine; of this Reynard was still profoundly convinced; yet they had not been able to survive the night; dawn had brought corruption, the precocious flower had withered in the bud.

With this spoiled dream of more open sexuality, the book might almost, like Forster’s Maurice, be “dedicated to a happier year.”  And dreams, or rather imagination, could account for much of what happens in The Image of a Drawn Sword. Roy is as likely to blank him in the street as he is to greet him like an old pal. Time seems to pass more quickly for others (“Funny how time goes”) than it does for Reynard: Roy climbs the greasy pole silently – Captain, Major, Colonel – in what seems to Reynard to be only a matter of weeks, while he is conscripted without warning. As Reynard battles the Army bureaucracy to find out what is going on (“That’s what we’d all like to know, mate”), it’s easy to see why the back cover of my edition applies the rank adjective Kafkaesque to the book. (What they really mean, I suppose, is Trialesque.) The more introspective he gets, the unhappier he becomes. Only when he accepts “the knowledge that the whole affair was … out of his hands” does he achieve “a curious, passive contentment.” That is not to prepare him for the heartstoppingly effective (if not entirely unforeseeable) ending, which is what moved The Image of a Drawn Sword up a rung for me, from curio to keeper.

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30 Comments »

  1. umlaut said,

    So good to read even the occasional review here, John!

    Curiously, some of the pieces here sound like they have exact replicas in Fight Club (the film if not the book, which I read some time ago now). Two men bareknuckle fighting in a car park, frosty meetings in public away from more, erm, animated private moments…

    Coincidence perhaps, but sounds like there are some interesting parallels, especially if doubts emerge about the behaviour\existence of the more exotic character.

    Regardless, sounds like this might be worth tracking down. Thanks.

  2. John Self said,

    That’s an excellent comparison, umlaut, which I hadn’t thought of (perhaps because I’ve only seen the film of Fight Club, and haven’t read the book). Perhaps I should now sneakily edit Palahniuk in to my mention of other authors above…

    I wonder if Palahniuk had read Brooke? Probably not, but then Brooke claims not to have read Kafka at the time of writing The Image of a Drawn Sword – yet in The Military Orchid, published two years before Image, he makes reference to something being “like a story by Kafka”.

    Incidentally, Brooke’s trilogy The Military Orchid is also available in Faber Finds, though I got a cheap copy of a nice silver-spined Penguin Modern Classics edition from 2002.

  3. Mary said,

    My heart leapt when I saw you were discussing this book John! I love Jocelyn Brooke and have two copies of `The Orchid Trilogy’ in that wonderful white Penguin Modern Classics edition. At one point I seemed to find a copy in every secondhand bookshop I went into which perhaps reflects how out of fashion Jocelyn Brooke became ( and still is).
    I also have `Image of a Drawn Sword’ in hardback which I came across by chance.Moving to France meant a cull of some of my books but that’s one I kept. The whole thing is a yearning homo-erotic fantasy and an understandable response to the pre-war military build up. There may be some parallels to scenes in Fight Club but the whole book is so very English. You can almost smell the beech woods and see the smoke rising from thatched cottages – perhaps that’s what makes the book so strange and creepy. I haven’t read it for years but I remember clearly the chilling scene where Reynard returns to his home. I think the combination of the violence and the cosy home counties setting is what makes the book so unforgettable.Thanks for your review and for reminding me.

  4. John Self said,

    Thanks for your comment, Mary. It’s great to see that Brooke is held in such affection by some readers still. Perhaps this will be one of those reviews which I expect to fall on stony ground – simply because I thought the author was obscure – a little like those on Robert Walser or Julian Maclaren-Ross, which ended up drawing numerous fans out of the woodwork. (Brooke is, however, sufficiently obscure that I notice if you search for the author and title of this book, this blog post is now the first search result.)

    You describe Image as a response to the pre-war military build-up, but it wasn’t published until 1950. Anthony Powell does suggest in his introduction to the Penguin edition that the book may have been written before the Military Orchid trilogy (which was published from 1948 to 1950), but are you saying that it may in fact have been written pre-war? Or just that Brooke’s response to the pre-war military build-up didn’t find expression until after the war?

  5. Mary said,

    Ah – now you’ve put me on the spot and I’ve just been hunting for my copy and can’t find it. ( I have a rather free-form arrangement of my books which relies on memory and association – clearly not always effective). I have a feeling that there was a preface where someone commented on the likely period when the book was first drafted. It’s true that Brooke was highly occupied during the war. – his account of his time serving in Italy in The Military Orchid is memorable. I’m probably making an ill-founded supposition about it being written pre-war based on my faulty memory but then again the gay subtext might have been rather risque at the time and he may have developed it over several years before publication..

  6. john h said,

    A surprise, John, to see you reviewing something by Brooke. He’s so obscure. I mentally associate him with Denton Welch. They’re both very fine writers who deserve to be better known. I came onto both of them via the neglected books site years ago and could find nothing but either of them for the longest time. Eventually, Welch’s “A Voice Through a Cloud” came back into print and I gobbled it up. Also later ordered via the internet a copy of “The Orchid Trilogy” by Brooke. Good stuff. I ended up giving that copy to a friend and never got it back. I’ve never seen another of his books anywhere. Don’t think too many of them have ever come out here in the states. Hopefully, your review will turn a few people on to the presence of his work.

  7. John Self said,

    Yes John, Brooke is closely associated with Denton Welch, whose work he championed – and also with Ronald Firbank, of whom he wrote a biography. I suppose this means I must now seek out some Welch…!

    Didn’t mean to put you on the spot, Mary – certainly the book as a response to the pre-war military build-up makes sense; I just couldn’t square it with the time of publication.

    For Brooke-fanciers out there, this might be a good time to reiterate the point made in my opening paragraph, that Faber now publish this book and the Orchid trilogy, as well as The Scapegoat and The Dog at Clambercrown (which phrase features in The Image of a Drawn Sword, referring to a pub in the vicinity of Reynard’s home. Of the landscape in Brooke’s books, the Faber site says, “If he were better known the term ‘Brookeland’ might have been coined to describe that part of Kent that he returned to repeatedly in his autobiographical fiction, a landscape he made uniquely his own, creating a sort of youthful Elysium imbued with homoerotic longing”). Sadly they’re in unprepossessing print-on-demand editions, but it’s better than nothing I suppose.

  8. obooki said,

    Going back to the Fight Club issue Umlaut brings up: this is one of the many books I’m stuck in the middle of (I’m up to page 60, been stuck there about a year), but this was exactly my thought reading it: – this is basically exactly the same plot as Fight Club – I mean, to the point that, if you’d written it, you might think of suing. – A man, dissatisfied with his life, dissatisfied with the pointlessness of modern living in general, encounters a mysterious stranger who invites him to join an underground organisation and tries to make him in general a bit more macho; and there were just beginning to be indications slipping in that this mysterious stranger might not actually exist (I’m sorry, I haven’t read all your review, since I didn’t want to have the plot ruined).

    I’ve read The Military Orchid too, which I liked better.

  9. Ian Massey said,

    Good to find this correspondence on Brooke, which I came across whilst seeking out information on Clambercrown (am currently reading The Dog at Clambercrown). Brooke and Denton Welch do have a following still, both poetic writers of a certain stamp, and right at the top of my list of favourites certainly. Good that Brooke is back in print, albeit in the unpleasant Faber Finds editions – although my copy of The Dog at Clambercrown is a rather tatty jacketless first edition found on ebay. Rather that than FF’s. I’ve so far read The Military Orchid trilogy and Image of a Drawn Sword: the latter I found mesmeric, full of homoerotic yearning as Mary has said here. Strong shades of Arthur Machen in it too (The Hill of Dreams). Jonathan Hunt has been working on Brooke’s biography for some time as you may know – there’s some of his writing on jocelynbrooke.com. Back to Denton Welch – I was most intrigued some years ago now to read that both William Burroughs and Kathy Acker rated him highly.
    All the best!

  10. John Self said,

    Thanks for your comments Ian. I do want to read The Dog at Clambercrown, which I read somewhere was his best book, though like you I will probably seek out an old edition rather than the textbook-size Faber Finds version. I’m afraid I don’t know Arthur Machen, so that’s another one for me to look out – thanks for the recommendation – oh, as well as Denton Welch of course! It’s great when one author leads to another like this, but it doesn’t do much for my sterling attempts to reduce the TBR pile (of which finally getting around to reading The Image of a Drawn Sword in the first place was an instance).

  11. Ian Massey said,

    Hello John, and thanks for your reply. I’d recommend starting with Denton Welch’s first book, Maiden Voyage, which is great. His journals are superb also. He’s an author I keep going back to, whilst my own TBR pile grows…
    Cheers – Ian

  12. Mary said,

    I did start The Dog at Clambercrown a few years ago when it was reissued by a fairly obscure publisher ( can’t remember who) with a photo of a young man reclining on the cover.. As a Brooke fan I was rather disappointed that he seemed to be reworking material already visited in The Orchid Trilogy and in the end I didn’t finish it. There is of course the possiblity that I’ve got this wrong and that The Dog etc was an early try out and preceded The Orchid Trilogy…. either way it wasn’t Brooke at his best in my opinion.

  13. Ian Massey said,

    I’ve been meaning to post a reply to yours all week Mary… I’m still reading The Dog at Clambercrown, and loving it, although I do see what you mean about reworking material, and how that might be off-putting. All (or most) of Brooke’s writing seems based on autobiography: something he shares with Denton Welch in fact. The Dog (1955) is subtitled ‘An Excursion’ and is in fact a series of linked excursions, as Brooke delves back into childhood and adult memories – retracing some of the narratives in The Military Orchid. There are passages in which the psycho-sexual stuff of Image of a Drawn Sword appears, and lots of poignant (to me) writing about the passage of youth/youthful imagination hitting the buffers of adult realities. The book is also relatively explicit about homosexual yearning for a work of the period. Brooke also writes acutely about Joyce, Lawrence and Huxley, and is often very funny, sometimes slyly so. I suppose that because his writing covers a relatively limited ground and rarely extends outside of autobiography-based narratives, Brooke will forever be described as ‘minor': but he is such a rich writer, and really under-rated in my view.
    All the best
    Ian

  14. Mary said,

    Ian – I agree entirely that Denton Welch and Jocelyn Brooke are a good match in terms of both their sexuality and their extraordinary writing about an English countryside that was disappearing even when they were describing it. As someone born in the 50’s and brought up in rural Surrey ( it was rural then!)
    I feel I experienced echoes of an Edwardian or even Victorian past which was entirely lost by the time my children were born and which was celebrated by these two writers. There is, I admit a bit of rose tinted nostalgia here – the kind of England glimpsed in the background of Nightmail or Went the Day Well and forever lost. Possibly that explains why they have both fallen out of fashion. But there’s also asperity and wit – perhaps the role of waspish outsider encouraged this? Were they aware of each other I wonder?

  15. Ian Massey said,

    Hello Mary
    Jocelyn Brooke was aware of Denton Welch certainly – he edited and wrote an introduction to a selection of Welch’s published works, published in 1963. (‘Denton Welch: A Selection from his Published Works’, Chapman & Hall). The intro by JB is very astute in my memory (need to re-read it) – and I’m sure he must have seen Denton as some kind of soul-mate. As to whether or not Denton was aware of JB, I’m not sure, though suppose it likely. Denton died very early though, in 1948.
    If I can find out anything more will write again.
    As to rural England in the Fifties, I too was born in the Fifties, and brought up in Cheshire, not in a rural area exactly, but one within easy enough walking distance of farmland etc. It’s potent stuff of course, and remains in one’s memory.
    Bye for now!

  16. Joe said,

    Very off-topic this but I’m surprised to find the Faber Finds series called ‘hideous’ here, and to find that statement agreed with. I thought they were considered modern design classics? In fact, they’re actually in the Design Museum in London. They’re a neat way of producing P.O.D. books with individual covers, aren’t they? A basic pattern exists for each genre and a logarithm adpats that every time one is produced. It’s unique to you. Otherwise you’d have blank books. But I suppose if you just don’t like the way the thing looks you might prefer that.

  17. John Self said,

    Thanks for the info, Joe: I had no idea that the Faber Finds were in the Design Museum. But I did call them ‘unfortunately hideous’, and the unfortunate part is that the idea could potentially work (and no fan of NYRB Classics, Pushkin Press, or Penguin 1935-2010 could deny the potential of standard cover designs), but the execution is terrible. The books are too large, the cover card stock has a horrible sheen, and worst of all, there is no information at all about the book or the author on the back cover or inside (at least on the ones I’ve seen in the flesh).

    I should also say that I agree largely with Charles Boyle, publisher at CB Editions, who said of them:

    Faber Finds: a good deed in a naughty world, or a scam? I think the latter, disguised as the former. If you really think a book is worth reissuing, you give it a bit of love: design the text, apply some thought and individual skill to the cover, commission an introduction from a current writer to lead new readers in. (NYRB, of course.) For the FFs, the text is scanned and flowed into a template; the covers are produced by an algorithm (or a four-year-old with a spirograph), and the books are priced way above what you can usually find them for on Abebooks. This is about making money from cheaply-bought rights with little risk.

    It does pain me somewhat to know that, now Faber have the paperback rights to Brooke’s books, there’s no chance of a really nice Classics edition from Penguin, Vintage or the like.

  18. Wonderful, this is why I love the blogosphere, I hadn’t even heard of this writer and I was sold long before the comparison to Machen – an extraordinary and vastly underrated writer.

    A shame about the POD designs, POD is so often terrible, and it really doesn’t need to be. A trip to Abebooks perhaps…

  19. Hm. I see you’ve not covered any Denton Welch. The name rings a bell, but I’m sure I’ve not read him. What am I missing out on?

  20. john h said,

    I’ve read a fair amount of Welch, so maybe I can respond to Max’s question. “A Voice Through A Cloud” for me, is his best work. It concerns his having been run over and his incredible journey back to good health. He never did quite finish the book, having died not long before he was to complete it. But don’t let that stop you from reading it. Very, very good.

    There’s a collected stories of Denton Welch out that was also very good. Welch is one of the few unjustly neglected writers who really lives up to the term. As for his earlier works, I couldn’t get into them.

  21. Ian Massey said,

    Denton Welch’s Journals are worth seeking out – published by Alison and Busby in 1984. I read them years ago now and they’re on my ‘to re-read’ list. DW is one of those writers I like to go back to occasionally. Agreed that he is worthy of the ‘unjustly neglected’ appellation, although I think he has a pretty large fan-base.

  22. John Self said,

    An interesting post here on first editions of Jocelyn Brooke’s works.

  23. tom wootton said,

    Good to see anything on Jocelyn Brooke – The Image of a Drawn Sword especially. Astonishing rural/psychic atmosphere. His prose is delightful, a remarkable stylist, I think.

    Wd agree it’s probably not about pre-war build up as such (although it certainly has that feel) and probably more to do with Brooke’s complicated feelings towards the military, which he returned to briefly after the war.

    A similar mixture of rural and martial is to be found in the music of John Ireland, a friend of Brooke (it’s good companion material to both Brooke and Machen) especially Mai-Dun and The Legend, the inspiration for which which Brooke wrote a small pamphlet about.

    I wrote a piece (rather long I’m afraid) on A Private View, one of his lesser works, as a way of examining him more generally, for those interested in looking further, especially as there isn’t all that much material on him –

    http://theidiotandthedog.wordpress.com/2009/08/01/allo-boys-ive-been-away-ive-ad-a-bit-of-a-oliday/

    (skip the facetious beginning couple of paragraphs – I’d been out of action for a while)

  24. amanda prantera said,

    nothing much in common excecpt swords and a kindly expressed admiration for my work from John Self, but try my blog: http://amanda-prantera.blogspot.com

  25. John Self said,

    Thanks for visiting, Amanda. I’ll vouch for what you say – anyone unfamiliar with Amanda Prantera’s work should check out some of her earlier books, among which I’d particularly recommend Capri File, Spoiler and Zoe Trope. What’s not to love, after all, in an author whose third novel was titled Conversations with Lord Byron on Perversion, 163 Years After His Lordship’s Death?

    The new work, in the blog linked to above, I presume to be a sequel to her 1995 novel The Kingdom of Fanes.

  26. Chris Scoble said,

    I was fascinated, John, to see rather belatedly this correspondence from April on Jocelyn Brooke. Your correspondents may be interested to know that I have a book coming out this November which forms a kind of collective biography of the writers of Bishopsbourne in Kent, including Richard Hooker, Joseph Conrad and, of course, Jocelyn Brooke. On Brooke, it is not intended as an exhaustive biography like that Jonathan Hunt is working on nor a detailed literary criticism like those of James Bridle on the Brooke website, but I hope will be of interest to Brooke fans nonetheless.
    The details are: Christopher Scoble, “Letters from Bishopsbourne: three writers in an English village” pp. xiv 353, 24 plates, one map. To be published on 4 November 2010 by BMM, PO Box 422, Cheltenham GL50 2YN. Advance orders can be placed with the publisher or Amazon. More details will shortly be posted on jocelynbrooke.com.

  27. For some reason this review stuck in my mind. What are your memories of the Brooke like now John? Did you read anything else by him after?

  28. John Self said,

    Funny you should mention it Max; it was on my mind too as I’ve linked to this review in a forthcoming post. I think it stands up well, and improves in the memory. I haven’t read more Brooke, but I do have his Military Orchid trilogy in the Penguin Modern Classics edition.

  29. I’ve thought about getting Orchid instead of this just to avoid the print on demand imprint.

    I’ve nothing against print on demand per se, but like anything it can be well or badly done and from what you say this isn’t one of the former.

  30. [...] to be in the narrator’s head, like ‘the Emergency’ in Jocelyn Brooke’s The Image of a Drawn Sword. “It appeared that the situation at home was obscure and alarming, no precise information was [...]


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